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Sun 1 Apr 2007 12:39 PM

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Scanning the skies

The focus on security has generated a boom in airport inspection system procurement. The cargo scanning solutions and systems hitting the market are faster and more capable of exposing threats to the supply chain, but deploying sophisticated technology is just one step in raising the bar in the fight against illicit activity.

The latest generation of X-ray and gamma-ray technology is capable of generating extremely sophisticated images of a container's contents. Without the right processes in place, and trained staff on hand however, the scanning will be futile. With a premium being placed on safety by global trading partners, each and every airport must keep abreast of developments in cargo scanning.

The technology now being invested in by major airports has been designed to minimise disruption to trade whilst still scanning every pallet and container handled. Middle Eastern and Indian airports and customs authorities can step up their fight against illicit, undeclared and dangerous goods passing through their airports, but to achieve the desired results will take a concerted effort beyond technology procurement.

Firstly, ‘scanning' cargo in itself can incorporate several aspects. The spectrum can encompass anything from specially trained sniffer dogs to radiation scans at drive-through portals. "The first challenge is to determine how extensive the scan will be and what components will make up the scan," explains John Hensley, SAIC vice president for business development, security and transportation technology unit.

In some quarters, a radiation scan is done in isolation only looking for radioactive material. This can be done using either a hand scanning device, which is a slow process, or with a drive through portal (RPM). Though the technology is available to carry out the task, individual checks do have limitations. "The device cannot detect a fully shielded weapon nor can it determine exactly what is in the container by itself. An X-ray or gamma-ray system can tell the operator what is in the container but does not detect radioactive emissions. If looking for non-nuclear, traditional explosives, again the sensing devices by themselves are relatively slow and also cannot see into the container," explains Hensley.

Evidently, the first objective is to determine what needs to be searched for, and then identify the most effective combination of scanning devices to meet that goal. The next challenge is to select equipment that will effectively do the required scanning without slowing down or otherwise complicating the movement of international trade.

Timely throughput is crucial to the success of the operation and several factors must come into play to ensure this is accomplished. Scanning is normally done within the busy and crowded environment of an airport cargo terminal. Space is at a premium, usually with little extra provision to set up new scanning equipment. Thus, the ideal scanning solution and equipment must be flexible enough to occupy minimal space and fit within the airport's existing operational footprint. An ad hoc approach to scanning will inherently bring problems.

"To maximise the use of the scanning equipment in the most efficient manner requires a major industrial engineering exercise," explains Hensley. Plans and procedures must be developed and rehearsed in conjunction with government to react to any positive alerts generated by the scanning equipment. Such proper planning will minimise supply chain disruption.

To compensate for space restrictions, mobile scanners offer an appealing solution as they can quickly be deployed where they are most needed at a given time. For example, when large volumes of cargo are expected to arrive by road for onward air transportation, the scanner can be deployed at the terminal gate clearing all goods on arrival at the airport, freeing valuable ground space within the airport. The scanning itself is only one aspect of the process. Parallel systems must be in place to read, store and transmit for analysis the data generated by the scanning systems in a secure manner. These are some of the considerations involved in setting up an operable scanning system.

The preliminary barriers overcome, it is crucial to examine the objectives, estimated throughput and process management. "For the majority of facilities handling large volumes of cargo, standalone hand scanners are not efficient by themselves. The primary detection tool is either a gamma-ray or X-ray system in either a portal or mobile mode," says Hensley.

These X-ray and gamma-ray systems are typically referred to as NII (non-invasive inspection) equipment. The other drive through scanning system available is the radiation portal monitor or RPM. The most efficient scanning systems use a combination of these two technologies. Currently, traditional explosive detection is done with handheld equipment or specially trained dogs.

The thousands of airports throughout the world range from very small facilities in Third World nations to the major cargo hubs in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and the Americas. The customs authority of the country that is importing or exporting the cargo determines the level of container inspection or scanning. Bilateral or multi-lateral treaties, compacts and agreements can be used to set an agreed upon level of container scanning between countries that are trading partners.

Customs authorities throughout the Middle East and India are generally responsible for the scanning of cargo in international trade, ensuring goods are correctly declared, duty paid, and security criteria met. In most countries customs officers either run or directly supervise the operation of the scanning equipment. However, there are some cases where contractors operate the equipment through a government approved agreement. Even in those isolated cases, the customs authorities remain in an oversight position for the scanning. Scanning at airports is also carried out by national police agencies and the military in various countries for internal or sensitive border control efforts.

Among other attributes, tremendous speed gives airfreight a head start in transporting goods around the world, delays inevitably erode this. Maintaining the highest levels of security has to remain paramount, and is the driving concern, but the swift carriage of goods is the lifeblood of the industry. The urgency in recent years to move towards a more comprehensive scanning of cargo (beyond standard X-ray inspection) has prompted calls from industry that targets being meted out by government representatives, who may not fully understand the nature or scale of the air cargo business, are unrealistic. This has been met by the stop-gap solution of ‘profiling' certain cargo by nature of origin and content, particularly in European and American airports.

Whilst the issue generates political capital for those behind the suggestions, the industry is still skeptical. The real challenge, as the industry sees it, is to embed security throughout the supply chain, rather than just focusing on screening at the end. "The US is proposing 100% screening of cargo on passenger flights in three years. This is not smart, but it is expensive - US$3.6 billion over ten years. The solution is a risk-based approach that involves the entire supply chain and cost efficient technologies such as advanced canine techniques. Then we can target screening to achieve the best results," says Giovanni Bisignani, director general of the International Air Transport Association.

The deployment of equipment for both passenger and cargo operations inevitably leads to a degree of duplication of investment. With the sophisticated, integrated solutions now hitting the market, these operations may be consolidated. "Currently, cargo and container security scanning is usually conducted in different facilities than the baggage security scanning at most airports around the world. A future design strategy might be to consolidate baggage and cargo security screening in the same location," suggests Charles Sander, vice president of airport operations, Unisys Global Transportation. The number of data elements and the specifics of those elements used in targeting suspected containers are internal to the respective government and are, for obvious reasons, not made public.

Given the weight of aviation editorial attention that American security legislation receives, there may be a temptation to believe that global plans to increase cargo scanning are being primarily driven by events in the US senate. This is however, just one of the elements driving the global increase in cargo scanning. Whilst the US may be legislatively the most active, all major cargo handling countries are developing safety and security plans to ensure supply chains remain secure. World events and their impact on decisions being made by governments, industry associations, and customs authorities throughout the world are driving a near universal step-up in cargo monitoring.

"Investigating and assessing the risk associated with imports and exports, and developing appropriate safeguards inevitably adds some cost to business, but like other forms of insurance, the expense represents a wise investment in the future of the business when compared to the potentially enormous cost of failure," observes Dr Guy Sadler, Boartes Strategic Services. "Because the vast majority of weapons proliferation occurs openly amid the international marketplace, this makes almost every shipment potentially suspect - and therefore a risk," he adds.

Ultimately it is in each airport's best interest to pursue a proactive and dynamic approach to cargo security, as airports will increasingly be judged not only on cost, but also security credentials.

The improved image quality that the latest generation of scanners are capable of carries an additional bonus for freight forwarding companies, and end users. By deploying integrated systems, there is a higher degree of security to the actual goods, and the cargo can actually move quicker through the supply chain. "Often when a container is opened and the contents removed for examination, the goods are not repacked in such a secure way which can lead to damage in onward transit, so anything that maintains the integrity of the sealed container is a good thing," says insurance provider Toby Sizeland, regional manager, AXA Gulf.

Many countries, agencies and even cargo handling companies share information, although this is often constrained by political sensitivities. The disparate technologies deployed across the world can also cause delivery problems. Ultimately, there is no universal protocol. "Security begins not only at the aircraft, it permeates the transport chain from start to finish, with all those in the chain challenged to do their bit: from the shippers, forwarders or airlines right through to industry associations and authorities," says Lufthansa Cargo security chief, Harald Zielinski. "We need to exchange experiences on a practical level more intensively so that practical experience is given greater weight in future regulations," he adds.

The challenge of security is a balance between keeping air transport safe from the minority who would do harm, while encouraging a smooth flow of commerce for the rest of us. The most significant next step for the industry must be a formal agreement between airports and customs authorities to allow the scanning and subsequent collection and transfer of data to various entities for analysis and action. Until that time, each airport and customs authority must remain vigilant, and deploy well trained staff to keep the industry, and world commerce safe from disruption.

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